This year, the world will commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the massive military landing on the beaches of Normandy, France, that marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

Boston native and veteran Enoch “Woody” Woodhouse plans to be there.

Sporting a dark, leather English High School letterman complete with an embroidered plane with a distinctive red tail, Woodhouse greeted a GBH News team in his high-rise apartment building near the Fenway on a chilly February morning.

“Incidentally, I was literally born across the street,” he quipped. “So, you might say I haven’t gone far in life.”

But, in his 97 years, Woodhouse has been a lawyer, an alum of Yale and Boston University, a husband, a father — and, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. He was one of roughly 16,000 service members who served as the first Black aviators and support staff in U.S. military history.

Their contributions to the war effort — and to the world — have become more appreciated over the years.

But that appreciation has been far from constant. And as Woodhouse and the few other remaining members of the Tuskegee Airmen continue to share their stories of their service and the discrimination they encountered after, their lessons become more valuable and rare with each passing year.

America at war

On Dec. 7, 1941, a Sunday, Woodhouse was on the way to church with his brother, mother and father, who was a preacher. What started as a typical start of the week at his congregation in Roxbury ended up being a date that would live in infamy.

“We were on our way to church and my mother said, ‘Boys, America is at war. I want you to serve your country,’” Woodhouse recalled of the hours after the Pearl Harbor attacks. “Can you imagine a Black woman saying that? All she had in the world were her two boys. And the pictures we grew up with [were] our people being lynched.”

As soon as he graduated from English High School in 1944, he signed up for the U.S. Army.

“I had my graduation diploma literally in hand,” he said. “This is why they called us the Greatest Generation. Because everybody served.”

Unlike everybody else who served, however, the Tuskegee Airmen, who were formed in 1941, faced a slew of additional hurdles because of their race.

Larry Sargent is the vice president of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum in Detroit. He said some Airmen didn’t openly talk about their experiences.

He recalls stumbling upon the revelation from a great aunt that two of his cousins had served with the esteemed corps.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. They came to the family reunion. But when we was growing up, 10, 11 years old ... why didn’t he never tell us that he was a Tuskegee Airman?’” Sargent recalled. “And she said, ‘Well, they felt bad because they served this country and the way they got treated abroad and back home when they came back, it hasn’t changed. So, they didn’t even talk about the situations they was in.’”

Beyond the usual indignities of segregation in the military, they also faced barriers like being barred from getting jobs as airline pilots when they got home. Then there were the cases of being completely scratched from history.

Fighting for their country, and for recognition

In 1949, the U.S. Air Force held the first-ever Fighter Gunnery Meet to name its “Top Guns” in the service — and a group of pilots from the Tuskegee Airmen won first place in the propeller aircraft category. But, mysteriously, the results officially listed the winners as “unknown” for years. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the results were properly recorded. Two years ago, the Air Force reaffirmed the accomplishment with a plaque at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

It was in this climate that Woodhouse served as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen as a paymaster. When he received commission as an officer in 1946, he was the only Black member of his officer class. Usually, the class dinner would have been held at a hotel in town in San Antonio, Texas, but they went instead back to their base after they got their commissions. It wasn’t until later that his class president revealed why they didn’t go there to celebrate.

“Because it was me. They did not accept Black people in the hotel. Period,” Woodhouse said.

“I was with the finest men I’ve known in life, no matter what their race.”
Enoch “Woody” Woodhouse, on serving with the Tuskegee Airmen

It wasn’t Woodhouse’s first time facing discrimination. Although he’s a proud English alum these days, Woodhouse had originally applied to attend the Boston Latin School at a time when Woodhouse said few Black students were enrolled at the prestigious school. While white acquaintances of the family got in, the Woodhouse family never got an acceptance letter.

His mother, he said, did not emphasize the role racism played in that snub.

“She never told me that,” Woodhouse said. “Why? She did not want me to feel a victim.”

It was a lesson that would stick with her son as he served a country that didn’t always love people like him back.

At the time, Woodhouse said he didn’t realize the significance of serving with the Airmen.

“Because we had nothing to compare ourselves with,” he said. “People asked me, ‘How does it feel in an all-Black unit with just nothing but Black people like yourself?’ I said, ‘I felt fine.’ Because I was with the finest men I’ve known in life, no matter what their race.”

A precious few remain

In total, the ranks of the Tuskegee Airmen totaled between 15,000 to 16,000 service members.

According to Frank Toland, the lead ranger at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama, only around 15 to 16 are still alive, as of his latest research from last year.

“What they saw — not only overseas, but what they saw and endured when they came back home. Nobody can tell those stories like they can.”
Frank Toland, the lead ranger at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama

Woodhouse has made a point to keep in touch with what he referred to as Documented Original Tuskegee Airmen, or DOTAs, throughout the years. These days, their reunions are modest in number.

“Oh my God,” he said with a laugh. “We all meet in a phone booth.”

That makes preserving the story of the Airmen all the more crucial. But time has a way of making even the most important lessons forgotten.

“There’s some places where they, you mention the Tuskegee Airmen, even in the local area and they don’t [really] know what you’re talking about,” Toland said. That’s part of what makes preserving the legacy of the Airmen so important — especially while several remain alive and well.

“What they saw — not only overseas, but what they saw and endured when they came back home. Nobody can tell those stories like they can,” he said.

Here in New England, Mike Thornton, the curator at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, loses sleep contemplating how the toll of World War II is becoming an artifact of a bygone era, with fewer people like Woodhouse around to talk about its cost.

“And I always feel that, like, World War II is one of those very teachable moments that ... I’m not sure we can afford to refight that,” Thornton said.

An older man in his service jacket laughs in his apartment building's lounge.
Woodhouse says, these days, reunions with fellow Airmen are modest in number. “Oh my God,” he said with a laugh. “We all meet in a phone booth.”
Meredith Nierman GBH News

Sharing his story

Most people know Enoch Woodhouse II by his nickname, “Woody.” But his birth name, which he shares with his father, is profound.

The name is taken from the Book of Genesis, where the man known as Enoch was a man of great faith. Faith so great that it is written he was taken away by God, without having to experience death. He was 365 years old.

Woodhouse has already experienced enough spectacular moments to fill a lifetime three or four times over. His face adorns a mural at Logan Airport, and he's known and admired in his community. The near-centenarian keeps a busy schedule, making appearances in his role as a veteran Tuskegee Airman.

Like a prophet of old, he knows the most important gifts he can leave behind are his wisdom and his story.

While there may be few like him left, Woodhouse reflects more on the state of the country than simply how many Airmen remain.

“I go by the climate in America,” he said. “What did we fight for? What did we die for?”

A mural depicts Woody as a young and older man, collaged together with depictions of service medals, a P-51 plane, and Woody's signature.
A mural at Logan Airport to honor the Tuskegee Airmen shows Boston native Enoch “Woody” Woodhouse. It was unveiled in October 2022.
Jennifer Moore GBH News